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Two slices of Euro-horror fun collected on one DVD!
In The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism, thirty-five years after the wicked Count Regula (Christopher Lee) was put to death for the murder of twelve virgins in his castle, a young man named Roger receives a mysterious letter from someone purporting to be the count and invites him to the castle to learn of his heritage. Together with a gun-totting priest and a young woman named Lilian who received a similar letter, the three make their way through inhospitable terrain until they reach the abandoned castle. But when they make their way inside, they discover a temporarily resurrected Regula and his faithful undead servant awaiting them! It is then that Regula unleashes the details of his horrendous plan – the execution of Roger for his familial ties to Regula’s past and the draining of Lilian’s blood so that Regula may live for all eternity!
Based tenuously on Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Pit and the Pendulum,” German director Harald Reinl’s 1967 gothic outing (which is also known as The Castle of the Walking Dead and Blood of the Virgins) is a fun and shivering ride into the macabre. Reinl has spent much of his entire career dealing with spooks and chills, and wastes no time getting the mood lathered on quickly with the execution of Regula at the beginning of the film, as follows the condemned count through the dank and cobweb-covered tunnels of the prison during the title sequence. From there, after setting up his main protagonists and the shadow of dread that Regula has cast over the countryside, he truly gets things moving with the adventure through the haunted forest as he dishes out gobs of thick fog, arms and legs growing out of trees, and plenty of corpses hanging from the limbs.
Throughout all of this, Lex Barker and Karin Dor, as Roger and Lilian, grab at the chance to shine on screen with the hammy dialogue and lavish costumes, knowing full well that they are about to be overcast by legendary Christopher Lee. Lee, whose work at Hammer Films by this time had turned him into a horror icon, once again chews up the scenery during his rather limited screen time as villainous Regula. Lee’s physical presence, coupled with that deep monotone voice, makes for an easy transition from Dracula to another undead aristocrat bent on living forever. This is by no means a challenging role for Lee, but any chance to watch him summon up evil is an opportunity not to be missed.
But even Lee can not stand up to the best character of the movie, that being the labyrinth-like castle setting for the second half of the movie. The castle comes complete with everything a sadistic madman could possibly want, and everything is covered perfectly with spider webs and dust. From cast-iron gates that know just when to close, to the torture devices that still contain the twelve corpses of Regula’s victims, there isn’t much more that you can ask for in a cursed castle. The highlight of the entire film comes toward the end as Lilian races through the castle trying to find Roger, who is about to be cut in two by the razor-sharp swinging pendulum. During this frantic search, every opportunity is taken to surprise the viewer with horrors as Lilian turns corner after corner. Reinl gleefully takes his film over the top, and we are helpless but to go anywhere but over the ledge with him.
Things take a more subtle gothic tone with Death Smiles on a Murderer. When a beautiful woman named Greta (Ewa Aulin), who suffers from amnesia after a horrific carriage crash, comes to stay at a nearby estate, she puts a spell of lust and obsession on any who crosses her path. After catching the attention of the doctor (Klaus Kinski) who comes to see her, she moves on to her gracious hosts, Walter and Eva. Greta begins an affair with both Walter and Eva, which creates a growing jealously between them, and when Greta mysteriously vanishes events take a sinister turn. Soon people begin to see Greta’s ghastly visage, and all those who witness her are not long for this word! Meanwhile, a local inspector who was trying to uncover Greta’s origin, turns his attention to growing number of mysterious deaths.
One of Euro-horror legend Joe D’Amato’s earlier efforts, this Italian film from 1973 is almost beyond genre specifications. What is certain though in this picture is D’Amato (whose real name is Aristide Massaccesi) clearly becoming comfortable with elements that would later become synonymous with his name, including graphic violence, explicit nudity and nonsensical plots. Another element increasingly becoming visible here is his ability to slather on the sleaze and drench a dreamlike quality over each and every scene.
Coming along with D’Amato for this blend of haunting horror and giallo-inspiring mystery is a great cast that is invaluable in creating the dreamy atmosphere of the movie. Klaus Kinski, who by this time was a living legend in genre pictures across all of Europe, lends a shockingly brief appearance despite his second billing. Kinski, who is rather reserved in his role as Dr. Sturges, still lends a commanding screen presence here which only adds to the uneasy feeling hovering over the movie. Most of his scenes revolve around him creating potions in his lab and trying to bring the dead back to life with the same gusto that would later be seen in Re-animator, and watching him gaze at bubbling vials is simply mesmerizing. But the star of the film is Ewa Aulin, who stars as Greta in one of her final screen appearances. Aulin absolutely nails the ghastly facial expressions and staring eyes, even when covered with cheap decaying makeup, required to give the films its eerie tones. That she is quite easy on the eyes, and does not hesitate in the least when it is time to shed her clothes, only adds to the appeal of what she can deliver.
D’Amato takes his time in leading up to key scenes, which he then relishes in with the delight of a director who knows that this is where he belongs. Whether it is the aforementioned scene in which Dr. Sturges works in his laboratory, the first sequence in which Greta makes her mysterious return to set the second part of the movie in motion, or the many erotic interludes, D’Amato is energetic to please. This is certainly apparent with his attitude toward vicious violence, as he gleefully mangles the faces of his victims with straight razors and shotgun blasts. While much of what winds up on the screen is tame by D’Amato’s later standards, as well as the genres he is so eloquently intertwined with, this should satisfy those with a zeal for early seventies gore and nubile flesh.
Both films are given their first widescreen transfer for the American DVD market with this release. Despite the atrocious looking title sequence in Torture Chamber, the prints are surprisingly well preserved given their age. The English dubbed audio for both, however, is less than perfect. Each has problems with sounding tinny and echoic, and a careful ear must be used to keep track of what is being said.
Audio Commentary – American Cinematheque programmer Chris D and Wyatt Doyle of newtexture.com provide a conversational commentary of both films. The commentary is a bit dry, but there is plenty of information to be culled by the Euro-cinema minded.
Gore Beat: Eurotrash Title Mania! – In this episode of Gore Beat, roving reporter Johnny Legend is on the prowl to get to the bottom of the confusion and controversy caused by re-titling films.
Previews – This jaunty promo reel promotes other fun and sleazy titles available from Legend House.
For thematic double-features that aim to please, you really can’t go wrong with these lesser-known Euro-horror films.
Legend House presents The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism / Death Smiles on A Murderer. Directed by Harald Reinl, Joe D’Amato. Starring Christopher Lee and Lex Barker. Running time 177 minutes. Not rated. Available on DVD: March 25, 2008. Available at Amazon.com